Just off Canada's west coast near Vancouver is a paradise for self-sufficiency seekers. Approximately five miles wide and thirteen-and-a-half miles long, Lasqueti Island is home to poets, artists, designers, musicians, and people from all walks of life trying to live off the land responsibly. There are no paved roads or public utilities—just ingenuity and elbow grease.
It was here that Mud Girls, an all-woman natural building collective, got their start in 2004. Founded by Lasqueti Island-resident Jen Gobby, the collective specializes in building compact energy-efficient homes, cabins, and sheds using cob - a clay mixture of sand, clay, straw, and water - and whatever materials are readily available.Over the years, the Mud Girls have built affordable, artful structures (often with feminine curves) all over western British Columbia. As part of their practice, the collective also preaches what it practices by sharing their expertise with those interested and spreading their brand of eco-conscious design through community workshops.
Dwell caught up with Gobby, who has been studying environmental studies and anthropology at McGill University in Montreal for the last year, to ask what about she hopes Mud Girls can achieve and how this collective not only empowers women, but helps build a better society.
How did the idea for Mud Girls start?
I wanted to build my own cabin but knew I could not do it alone, nor could I afford to pay for help. So the idea for a bartering collective came to me. We began in 2004 working one weekend per month on each other's projects.
The Mud Girls’ full name is the "Mud Girls Natural Building Collective." What do you mean when you say “natural builder”?
It means building with natural and recycled materials. It means observing and designing for the site's solar, wind, and water patterns; choosing building materials that the land nearby provides; building small as possible. It provides a non-toxic building site and living environment. It's hard work and many hands in lieu of heavy machinery. It means sharing skills freely.
Mud Girls is an all-female collective. Why was there a need to focus on women?
Building is a male-dominated trade on Lasqueti and other rural gulf islands. A culture of DIY and self-sufficiency, and the ability to provide one's own shelter is key to being able to take care of one's self. I had noticed that oftentimes when a couple breaks up on Lasqueti the woman ends up leaving the island due to a lack of skills needed to make it on her own. I felt this should change.
[Mud Girls] offers women a way to learn to build in a very supportive and non-competitive environment. Many of the women who have come to our workshops to learn to build never would have thought of themselves as builders.
From your experience, how does constructing homes affect women builders?
Confidence! If I can build a house, I can do anything else I previously thought I couldn't do!
Does it also affect the community in which they work?
It changes their perceptions of what women can do and shifts people's ideas about building, too.
Mud Girls specializes in compact homes that are 100 to 500 square feet. What techniques does the collective employ to manage small spaces?
Built-in furniture is a great way to make for a small, but functional, space. Design your life for more outdoor-based living!
Buy less stuff! Most houses are filled with stuff we don't really need.
Build the smallest home you think you can live in, but design with the option to build-on if you feel the need to later.
What do you think are the biggest hesitations people have when building their own homes? What would you suggest for them to get past it?
If you've never built, it seems scary and intimidating. Attend a workshop, or help a friend build their place. Get in there, get your hands dirty and start to get a sense of what's involved. There are many inspiring books about natural building and design. Read up, educate yourself. Build a playhouse or a doghouse or a model of your dream home. The first thing I built myself was a cob oven in the shape of a dragon. I was hooked—there was no stopping me after that.
What advice would you give to women looking to build something of their own?
Don't let other people tell you what you want or need. Listen to other people and learn from experienced builders and others who have designed and built in the area. But stay true to what you want your home to feel like and provide for you. Be involved in the building process.
You don't need to be a professional builder in order to build your own home. Throughout most of human history, and in many parts of the world today, both men and women build their own shelters. It's not rocket science. It is important to choose professionals to help you (engineers, architects, laborers) based on how empowered and excited they make you feel about your project. If you walk away from a meeting feeling disempowered—like your power to choose has been taken away from you—you are not working with the right people.